Analysis

Police Misconduct in Interrogation of Netanyahu Witness Won't Be What Collapses the Case

Numerous instances were reported in the past few years in which detectives took improper shortcuts in investigating corruption allegations

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Gala Dinner for the Opening of a New Visitor Center in the Hula Valley, on November 5, 2019.
Marc Israel Sellem

Despite his close supervision of the pending criminal cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has not kept his promise to cure the major crimes unit of the Israel Police of the ills that plague it: Overaggressiveness on the part of some detectives, investigative actions carried out without requisite court approval and violations of human rights.

Last week, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court reprimanded detectives for searching the cellphones of advisers to Netanyahu without a court order and without notifying the suspects of their right to refuse. Now we have learned that investigators from the financial crimes unit working on the so-called Case 4000, involving allegations that the prime minister gave illegal favors to businessman Shaul Elovitch, summoned a person close to former Netanyahu media adviser Nir Hefetz, a state’s witness in the case, solely for the purpose of placing psychological pressure on Hefetz.

Numerous instances have been reported in the past several years in which detectives took improper shortcuts in investigating corruption allegations, violating the fundamental rights of citizens in their search for the truth.

About a year ago, I observed the interrogation of a suspect serving in a senior government position. He was summoned for questioning over his rather marginal role in a well-publicized corruption affair. The shouting and insults that a detective showered on the man who shrank into his seat in terror, clearly terrified at the prospect of being linked to a crime, left me slack-jawed with astonishment.

In February 2018, Hefetz was arrested in connection to a number of serious allegations, including a blunt attempt to obstruct the investigation during a nighttime meeting at the Elovitch home, during which incriminating text messages were deleted from the phones of main figures in the case.

Hefetz remained silent for days, despite pressure from investigators. When he agreed to turn state’s evidence, he supplied recordings supporting Case 2000, the Yedioth Ahronoth quid-pro-quo affair. He gave detectives details of the meeting between Netanyahu and Elovitch that he arranged and discussed dozens of text exchanges among himself, Bezeq chief Elovitch and Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the Elovitch-controlled Walla news website, in which Hefetz untiringly worked to obtain positive coverage for Netanyahu. Hefetz also told the detectives about the circumstances that led to his attempt to obstruct the investigation of Case 4000.

A state’s witness is by definition someone who has committed crimes, and sometimes such a person — eager to please, perhaps addicted to lying — “remembers” a particular incident only when it is described to them by a detective. Such tendencies appear in some of Hefetz’s statements to police, the weaknesses of which Netanyahu’s lawyers detailed in the tome they delivered to Mendelblit in the hope of demolishing the case prosecutors are building against the prime minister in the Bezeq-Walla affair.

But even when part — and sometimes all — of the testimony of someone who has turned state’s evidence can be discredited, it doesn’t necessarily lead to an acquittal. In some cases, the part that is true and damning is enough to win a conviction. In others, the additional evidence is strong enough to make the prosecution’s case.

Key parts of Hefetz’s statements have outside corroboration, whether from the suspects or material evidence such as recordings. The calls to withdraw the agreement with Hefetz, then, stem from a blend of ignorance and self-interest.

Mendelblit must respond in the case of Hefetz as he has in all the other events in the course of the Netanyahu corruption investigations in which detectives crossed the line. He should avoid the defensiveness and self-justification that is law enforcement’s instinctive response to having its flaws exposed.

We should prepare for another onslaught from Netanyahu’s lawyers in the days to come. Like the incriminating statements and transcribed conversations, this alone won’t convict the prime minister, but neither will it cause the cases against him to collapse. At most, it will serve as additional fuel to those who seek Netanyahu’s ouster even at the price of violating the rights of suspects and to those who eagerly rallied around him even at the price of allowing corruption to thrive.